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HRW Accuses Both Sides Of War Crimes In Russia-Georgia Conflict


Russian Emergency Ministry officers help an elderly Georgian woman leave her destroyed home in the South Ossetian village of Kurta on August 20, 2008.

Russian Emergency Ministry officers help an elderly Georgian woman leave her destroyed home in the South Ossetian village of Kurta on August 20, 2008.

(RFE/RL) -- The advocacy group Human Rights Watch, in a new report on the August war between Russia and Georgia, has concluded that both Moscow and Tbilisi are guilty of "numerous violations of the laws of war."

The report cites what Human Rights Watch (HRW) calls "indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks" by Georgia and Russia on their opponents, and similar treatment by South Ossetian forces of ethnic Georgians living in the breakaway region.

In short, says HRW, all three sides are guilty of a startling number of war crimes in a conflict that formally lasted only a week. The New York-based organization's 200-page report is titled "Up in Flames: Humanitarian Law Violations in the Conflict Over South Ossetia" and is based on more than 460 interviews done over several months of field research.

Georgia's forces, HRW says, showed "blatant disregard" of civilians' safety by mounting attacks on South Ossetia that failed to discriminate between civilians and combatants. In particular, the group cites Tbilisi's use of multiple-rocket Grad launchers in civilian areas of the region.

HRW notes that Russian forces also are suspected of using Grad rockets. The group doesn't confirm the claim, but it does fault Moscow for the deaths of hundreds of Georgian civilians, and the displacement of tens of thousands more, in the eight days of fighting and in the weeks that followed.

It says many Georgian refugees still cannot return to their homes.

'Looted, Beat, Threatened'

As for South Ossetian forces, they, too, are far from blameless. The report says they "looted, beat, threatened, and unlawfully detained" many ethnic Georgians living in the area, and killed some. The point, according to Human Rights Watch, was to force ethnic Georgians to leave the territory and never return.

There also have been reports that each side is illegally holding captives -- both civilians and military prisoners of war -- more than five months after the conflict ended.
In the aftermath, both Georgia and Russia mounted investigations into the brief war.

Anna Neistat, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch's emergencies division and a specialist in humanitarian crises, says Georgia's probe has already yielded a significant amount of information. Russia's investigation, by contrast, has generated, "more questions than answers."

Neistat points to Moscow's accusation, early in the fighting, that Georgia was committing "genocide" in South Ossetia. Since then, however, Russia has downgraded its remarks, saying only that it has been investigating suspicions of genocide.

So far, Neistat says, Russia has been able to attribute 162 fatalities to Georgian forces. She says that figure is dramatically lower than Moscow's initial reports, and also fails to distinguish between civilians and armed militia members.

Neistat says Human Rights Watch has had no success in getting clarifications from Moscow.

"This is disappointing because I do think that, given that there were so much speculation and misinformation at the very beginning of the conflict, it is high time for the Russian authorities to announce some at least preliminary results of their investigation," Neistat said in an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. "And so far, these results have not really shed light on what actually happened and who was responsible."

There also have been reports that each side is illegally holding captives -- both civilians and military prisoners of war -- more than five months after the conflict ended. After the fighting, Neistat says, there were exchanges of captives, but reports from both sides have persisted about people being illegally detained.

"So far, we have not investigated this issue in particular, largely because we were trying to focus on what happened during the conflict," Neistat says. "But I do think that, since these allegations continue to emerge, that could possibly become the subject of our next investigation. It would not surprise me if some of these allegations are true, given the previous history of the conflicts in this region. This is something that needs to be looked into further."

'Impartiality And Objectivity'

With the war over but tensions remaining, Neistat says HRW is focused on issues like establishing what exactly happened between Georgia and Russia.

"Both sides are responsible for conducting a thorough and impartial investigation into the conduct of their forces and bringing the perpetrators to justice," she says. "And when we're talking about Russia, this concerns not only Russian forces but also the South Ossetian forces that were committing abuses in the territory controlled by Russia. We do hope that, at some point, there will be an international investigation, which would ensure impartiality and objectivity."

HRW is also concerned about the safe return of people forced to flee their homes -- primarily ethnic Georgians driven from South Ossetia -- and insecurity in border areas in undisputed Georgia that informally remain under the influence of Russian forces.

Neistat says it's up to Russia to ensure security in occupied South Ossetia -- and possibly along Georgia's border regions, as well.

"There are continued allegations of attacks, and in some [Georgian] districts, like Akhalgori, people feel increasingly unsafe," Neistat says. "Again, the question is: Who is in control of these territories? And if it is, indeed, Russia, it is Russia's responsibility to ensure the safety and security of people in these areas."

Manana Kuzma of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report.

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